Honduras’ Congress has approved a law that prohibits the public possession and transportation of guns in the province of Colón, located on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Colón has been one of the most affected departments in a country with the world’s highest murder rate—86 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The region of Colón has seen dramatic levels of violence due to heightened narcotrafficking activity as well as a simmering agrarian conflict, which pits poor farm workers against agricultural businesses and the private guards they employ. The land conflict alone has led to 78 murders in the last three years in Colón.
This new law is seen as a victory for Honduran forces trying to crack down on organized crime. Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla was pleased with the measure, noting that “the bloodshed that continues taking place must stop and the disarmament of the local population is needed.” The gun law applies to public citizens only, and exempts police, soldiers and private guards.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Dominican Republic presidential results; Raúl Castro’s daughter travels to the U.S.; Honduran uproar over counternarcotics operation; Colombia responds to last week’s assassination attempt; and Brazil’s economy slows.
Medina Leads in Election Returns: With over three-fourths of the vote counted in yesterday’s presidential election in the Dominican Republic, ruling party candidate Danilo Medina leads challenger—and former president—Hipólito Mejía. The tally has Medina ahead of Mejía by 51 percent to 47 percent, according to the BBC, which would cross the majority threshold to avoid a runoff. However, more votes remains to be counted; the Dominican expatriate community could play a deciding factor. Stay tuned for the announcement of a winner.
Mariela Castro to Visit the U.S.: The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and outspoken gay rights activist, Mariela Castro, will begin a weeklong visit to the United States this week after being granted an entry visa by the U.S. government last week. She will make stops in San Francisco and New York City. In San Francisco, she will chair a panel on sexual diversity at the forthcoming congress of the Latin American Studies Association. Ms. Castro will also give a talk at the New York Public Library next Tuesday, May 29. What does this mean for the future of U.S.-Cuba exchanges? AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini comments, “While the decision to grant Raúl Castro’s daughter a visa likely indicates a shift in U.S. visa policy, the decision not to grant visas to well-known academics like Rafael Hernandez and others is odd and unfortunate.”
Honduras-DEA Fallout: After a Honduran counternarcotics operation last week involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ended in the death of four innocent civilians, local Honduran civil society groups are demanding an end to U.S. presence in their country with a consortium of five Indigenous groups declaring the DEA agents “persona non grata.” Residents burned down government offices last week in protest and U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Howard Berman called for a review of U.S. assistance to Honduras. AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak points out that “the Hondurans and the U.S. government are both saying that no shots were fired by DEA agents. But still, this incident will likely force a re-evaluation of what should be the exact terms of the U.S. support role.”
In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
Thousands of farmworkers seized 30,000 acres of land from major landowners and private companies in Honduras on Wednesday morning. The coordinated land seizure, which commemorated International Day of Peasant Struggle, marks the largest in the country’s history. The farmers say their actions are not motivated by politics, and claim that they have a right to cultivate the seized land because it is public property according to Honduran law.
Mabel Marquez of Vía Campesina’s Honduras chapter said that peasants “want to avoid any type of confrontation” and are open to dialogue with government officials. But hours after 1,500 farmers seized land belonging to Compañía Azucarera Hondureña, S.A. in the northern Cortés department, police had already begun evictions. Other land seizures occurred simultaneously in the Yoro, Santa Bárbara, Intibucá, Comayagua, Francisco Morazán, El Paraíso, and Choluteca departments.
Though Wednesday’s confrontations between farmers and law enforcement remained relatively peaceful, many previous land disputes have ended in violence. Tension over land has run high in Honduras for decades, as half the population lives outside of the cities and 72 percent of rural households live in poverty. Fifty-five farmers, farm security guards and policemen have died in land-related conflicts over the past two years alone.
Over the past weeks, an unprecedentedly open debate has arisen over the wisdom of prevailing anti-drug policy in the Western Hemisphere. The present U.S.- led strategy, which relies heavily on aggressive interdiction and law enforcement, is being openly called a failure and even counterproductive by some Latin American leaders, who are asking for renewed discussion of other options, including, most notoriously from the U.S. perspective, the legalization of consumption. The heavy emphasis of anti-drug policy on repression, say these critics, has encouraged the domination of the drug trade by well-organized, heavily armed, ruthless and extremely violent cartels, with horrifying effects.
Not coincidentally, the epicenter of the debate is Central America, a transshipment center for up to 80 percent of drugs headed for the U.S., where criminal gangs have overwhelmed weak governments and helped make some of these societies—especially Honduras and Guatemala—among the world’s most dangerous. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate is that the argument for legalization is being promoted most forcefully by Guatemala’s newly-elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-leaning ex-general and former director of military intelligence during the country’s civil war: nobody’s idea of a naïve idealist.
The U.S., whose treasure, power and prestige has been invested in the war on drugs (a term now officially abandoned) since the Nixon administration, has reacted defensively to criticism. The Obama administration sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on a tour of the region to attempt to tamp down opposition, while Vice President Joe Biden met with the regions’ presidents soon after. Biden said last week that while the U.S. was not opposed to discussing the merits of drug policy, there was no chance that the U.S. would change its position against legalization. In the end, Biden mentioned in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last week only that the Obama administration was asking the U.S. Congress for $107 million in continuing security assistance for the region in the coming year.
During Vice President Joe Biden’s one-day visit to Mexico City on Monday, President Felipe Calderón asked that the United States do more to "strengthen actions against the trafficking of weapons into our country and money laundering,” according to a statement from the president's office. More than 60,000 of the weapons used by Mexican cartels have been identified as originating in the United States.
Biden also met with the three presidential candidates participating in Mexico’s July 1 general election to discuss security and cooperation. The frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, said after his meeting that his Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) party is committed to fighting organized crime. "The discussion is not whether we should or shouldn't fight against it, but what we can do to achieve better results, he told reporters. Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador said later that the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship should prioritize development, jobs and welfare to decrease the push of migration. Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) candidate Josefina Vásquez Mota, who is closing in on Peña Nieto’s lead in the polls, said that the candidates in the U.S. and Mexican presidential should avoid the contentious immigration issue in the lead up to their respective elections.
Biden travels to Honduras today to meet with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, as well as the presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Over the past several months, the presidents of these Central American nations—including Guatemala's President Otto Pérez Molina—and Mexico have said they are open to the idea of legalizing drugs as a response to the U.S.’s inability to curb demand. But after Biden said "there is no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy."
What does AQ Online expect to be the anticipated headline grabbers for the week of March 5-9, 2012? The top-five stories include: Joe Biden’s Latin America tour; FIFA’s criticism of Brazil; Hugo Chávez’ health recovery; new presidential polls in Mexico; and the UN making further preparations for Rio+20.
1) Biden in Mexico and Honduras: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived yesterday in Mexico, where he holds meetings today in Mexico City with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and the three presidential candidates for the July 2012 election. According to Tony Blinken, national security advisor to the vice president, Biden and Calderón will discuss a wide range of bilateral issues “in the spirit of equal partnership, mutual respect and shared responsibility.” Tomorrow morning, Biden travels to Honduras to meet privately with President Porfirio Lobo, and then will have lunch with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. Much of Biden’s visit will center around the violence surrounding narcotics trafficking through Central America.
Although Blinken said that the meeting in Honduras “provides an opportunity to reaffirm the United States' strong support for the tremendous leadership President Lobo has displayed in advancing national reconciliation and democratic and constitutional order,” AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini posits, “almost three years after the coup, Honduras has deteriorated politically and socially—and the region has largely walked away from it.”
2) Brazil-FIFA Row: After FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke criticized on Friday Brazil’s lack of preparedness for the 2014 World Cup, specifically its lack of infrastructure and delayed construction timetables, Brazilian Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo has refused to communicate directly with Valcke. Rebelo called Valcke’s remarks—specifically that Brazil needs a “kick in the backside”—offensive and unacceptable. Expect this contention to further increase as the June 2014 kickoff date approaches, but more recently as Valcke lands in Brazil in the coming days.
3) Chávez in Recovery: The revelation by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that the lesion he had surgically removed in Cuba was indeed a malignant tumor has fueled speculation about his long-term health outlook before and after the October 7 presidential contest against Henrique Capriles Radonski. According to Christopher Sabatini, “unfortunately, the president has refused to be transparent about his condition in the past” and that his admission of the malignant tumor “still raises a number of questions including the prognosis for his recovery, his treatment and some alternative plan should his condition take a turn for the worse.”
AQ Online today launches its weekly Monday Memo that looks ahead to what it expects to be the top headline grabbers for the week. The top anticipated stories for the week of February 27 include: Hugo Chávez’ surgery; U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s current five-country Latin America tour; U.S. Vice President’s forthcoming visit to Mexico and Honduras; the search for a new prime minister in Haiti; and FARC suspending kidnappings in Colombia.
Chávez' Cancer: As the Venezuelan president heads to Cuba for a second surgical operation, the rumor mill on his real health status will continue as will the discussion about what its implications will be for Venezuela's October presidential election. Christopher Sabatini, AQ editor-in-chief, observes: “While it may translate into sympathy support, President Chávez' lack of transparency about his illness and treatment will likely raise fears among some Venezuelans about their future and a potential successor—irrespective of what the president says upon his release.”
Napolitano on Latin America Tour: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano begins a five-country tour today through Wednesday in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) press release, Secretary Napolitano will be accompanied by Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection David Aguilar and DHS Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Alan Bersin. Her visit is likely intended to reiterate support for security measures like the Central America Regional Security Initiative and reinforce counter-trafficking efforts to interdict narcotics through key transit points.
Biden to Mexico and Honduras: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Mexico and Honduras on March 4-6, meeting with both Presidents Calderón and Lobo. Why is the Vice President going to Honduras? While Mexico remains an important economic, diplomatic and strategic partner in the war on drugs, the trip to Honduras is a mystery. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become the murder capital of Central America. Two weeks ago, a fire at a Honduran prison left 350 inmates dead—an incident that Human Rights Watch blamed on poor and overcrowded conditions in Honduran prisons.
Haiti Prime Minister Watch: The abrupt resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Gary Conille on Friday culminated weeks of disagreement between him and President Michel Martelly. The departure of the former UN diplomat and favorite of the international aid community is a blow for both political stability in Haiti and for donor nations that had great hopes in a government that included his technical skills. Jason Marczak, AQ senior editor, says: “Expect President Martelly to move quickly in naming a successor, with a candidate likely announced this week.” Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe is one possibility as is Chief of Staff Ann-Valerie Milfort. However, both would face a tough confirmation by an opposition-controlled legislature.
FARC Hostage Release: Colombia's FARC announced on Sunday that it will suspend all kidnapping and free remaining prisoners. Is this a political ploy or a true change in tactics? Given the group's decentralized nature, it is unclear whether the FARC secretariat can actually enforce the order, if it chooses to do so. Expect renewed debate this week on whether this may help to clear the way for an eventual peace dialogue or if the current strategy should continue without talks.
The White House announced yesterday that Joe Biden will travel to Mexico and Honduras on March 4–6. In Mexico City, he will meet with President Felipe Calderón to underscore the U.S. commitment to dialogue and collaboration on a range of issues important to both countries. Following that, Vice President Biden will travel to Tegucigalpa for a bilateral meeting with President Porfirio Lobo. Further details about these meetings will be released at a later date.
Biden will also participate in a meeting of Central American leaders organized by President Lobo, the president pro tempore of the Central American Integration System. It is expected that the topic of crime and security will figure heavily into that meeting—especially following Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s statement last week that his country and others should consider legalizing drugs to help reduce violence in the region.
In both countries, Biden will also be discussing the agenda for the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Cartagena, Colombia, in mid-April, and the official theme of which will be physical integration and regional cooperation within the Western hemisphere as mechanisms for development and increased prosperity.
Biden last traveled to the region in March 2009, when he met with Latin American heads of state at the Summit of Progressive Leaders in Viña del Mar, Chile and a summit of Central American leaders in San José, Costa Rica.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on Saturday that the surge of police and military personnel in cities highly affected by drug-related violence—part of a mission known as Operación Relámpago (Operation Lightning)—has been successful in reducing crime.
According to the president’s remarks on national television and radio, the operation, which began on November 1, has lowered the rate of violence by 90 percent in Tegucigalpa and 50 percent in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ two largest cities. Lobo added, “From the results that have been obtained in a few days, we are confident that as time passes by the entire population will restore its confidence in returning to the streets without having fear of being victims of criminals.”
Operation Lightning was launched to combat a spiraling wave of violence in Honduras, which has claimed 20 lives every day and earned the Central American nation the highest homicide rate in the world—82.1 murders per 100,000 people—according to the 2011 Global Study on Homicide, which was published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Lobo has pledged a zero-tolerance attitude toward crime and corruption. He fired his top police chiefs in the end of October.